My Favourite Films #22: Armageddon

I briefly considered filing this with the “Bad Movies I Love” tag, but while it’s cheesy and flawed, it’s still a little too good to join that club.

armageddon pos

The reason I love this movie is because it’s a big, loud, dumb disaster movie, and they don’t mess about setting up the peril. A giant asteroid (the size of Texas) is heading for Earth and en-route has dislodged some smaller bits of space shrapnel which smash up New York. But just in case the danger hasn’t got through to the audience, we get Billy Bob Thornton’s NASA boss Dan Truman sets out the level of damage we can expect to the President:

Damage? A total, sir. It’s what we call a global killer. The end of mankind. Doesn’t matter where it hits, nothing would survive, not even bacteria.

And then later on he gets even more entertainingly specific in his description:

When the rogue comet went through the asteroid belt, it sent shrapnel right for us. For the next 11 days, the Earth’s in a shooting gallery. Even if the asteroid itself hits the water, it’s still hitting land. It will slam into the ocean bedrock. Now if it’s a Pacific Ocean impact, which we think it will be, it will create a tidal wave about three miles high, flash boil millions of gallons of sea water. It will hit the West Coast and wash up in Denver. Japan is gone, Australia is wiped out. Half of the Earth’s population will be incinerated by the heat blast, the rest will freeze to death in a nuclear winter. Basically the worst parts of the Bible.

Luckily “smartest man on the planet” Ronald Quincy (hello to Jason Isaacs) has a cunning plan- land some dudes on the asteroid, drill a hole, chuck a nuke in it and blow it into smaller chunks which will either miss the planet or burn up in the atmosphere. But for such a tough task they need the best driller in the business.

Enter Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), who’s an unorthodox fellow, introduced to us hitting golf balls off his rig at a Greenpeace protest ship. We’re well inside Willis’ comfort zone here, with him playing a wise-cracking hardass who laughs in the face of danger and who never gives up, it’s John McClane trading his vest in for a spacesuit.

Would you fool around with this man's daughter?
Would you fool around with this man’s daughter?

Harry’s got a problem with one of his team, reckless and cocky AJ (Ben Affleck), and things get tougher between the two after Harry finds his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) in AJ’s bed. Harry deals with this by chasing AJ with a shotgun before stopping to avert a disaster AJ’s recklessness caused and fire the younger man.

Harry and Grace are then taken to NASA where Truman explains it to him, and shown the gear they’re going to use on the mission. This turns out to be a poorly constructed version of one of his own designs. He also meets the crew, and realizing they lack the proper training and there’s no time to bring them up to speed, Harry suggests that his crew go on the mission.

This does not go down well, because Harry’s crew are a bunch of roughnecks and nutcases. They are also one of the film’s major strengths, filling the supporting cast with colourful characters played by actors like Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Patton and Steve Buscemi. The scenes of this gang of misfits struggling through their physical and psychological testing. There’s also a scene where they outline the rewards they want for their service which is fun too.

Of these, Buscemi is the best, playing Rockhound, the horny, disreputable genius who gets several great lines along the way and who steals the show. Buscemi captures the characters’ sleazy side with a light touch which keeps him on the amusing side of the fence, and nails the smug satisfaction and impatience of the smartest guy in the room. More on Buscemi later.

Harry also has to recruit AJ for his skills, and they continue training, but AJ refuses to listen to Harry during a trial and NASA doubt whether he can manage on the mission. Harry insists his men get the night off before the mission, but a drunken brawl by his men leads to the mission and the asteroid being revealed to the public.

AJ and Grace spend their last few hours together, in a rather sweet scene soundtracked by Tyler’s real life dad Steven belting out the epic power ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” with Aerosmith, which on it’s own would be a reason to love this film, as it’s a throwback to the 80s trend of giving a movie a massive, fist clenching anthem. And this is a favourite of mine and suits the movie down to the ground- overblown bombast with a few minor moments that almost reach subtlety.

Now, a lot of cats used to pretty sniffy about Affleck as an actor, but I always thought this was unfair. This isn’t his best work in front of camera, but he’s perfectly capable of playing the heartthrob hero and he does have a certain likable enthusiasm as the overly confident driller. Plus the romantic scenes with Tyler are handled with surprising tenderness by Michael Bay, and they have decent chemistry onscreen.

Affleck and Tyler during their rather sweet love scene
Affleck and Tyler during their rather sweet love scene

The crew split in two groups to man the two flash new shuttles Freedom and Independence, to increase their chances they will dig two holes on either side of the asteroid. Aboard Freedom, Harry leads Rockhound, Max (Ken Hudson Campbell) and his best friend Chick (Patton). The Independence crew is headed up by AJ and includes hulking man mountain Bear (MCD) and AJ’s best friend, cowboy slacker Oscar (Owen Wilson). They are accompanied by NASA pilots and explosive experts.

En-route they stop on the Russian space station Mir to refuel, however, they accidentally destroy it and have to take on the Cosmonaut Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare), who’s slightly unhinged after being alone in space for over a year. Lev joins AJ on the Independence.

As they near the asteroid, Independence is struck by debris and crashes. Believing the crew to be lost, Grace is distraught on Earth while the pressure is now on Harry’s crew. But they’ve missed the target area and land somewhere tougher to dig.

From then on, Michael Bay does a pretty good job of keeping the tension up despite it being a bunch of dudes digging a hole, throwing in gas pocket explosions and flying debris. And the script adds a few more complications in the form of a ticking clock as the asteroid nears the deadline for when it can be safely blown up.

On Earth Truman is confronted by the realization that General Kimsey (Keith David) is under orders to remote detonate the nuke if it looks like the mission will fail. Kimsey is reluctant to do this but will follow his orders if he has to, despite Truman and Quincy telling him it won’t work.  Back on the rock, there’s an argument over this news and a tense stand off with Colonel Sharp (William Fichtner), the officer in charge, who has no faith in Harry.

Harry and his boys are falling behind and hit by a series of disasters, including Rockhound losing his shit in a hugely entertaining way (riding the bomb Dr Strangelove style and using the ship’s machine gun to blow holes out of the asteroid). This is one of the most fun scenes in the flick and a lot of respect to Fichtner, who manages to deliver the line “My God….he’s got space dementia!” with a straight face.

Buscemi then spends much of the film tied to a chair, and still manages to run off with the entire movie.

Scene stealer- Steve Buscemi
Scene stealer- Steve Buscemi

Things go from bad to worse when their drilling vehicle is destroyed. Luckily, AJ, Bear and Lev have survived and manage to reach them in theirs. They dig the hole but now a new problem presents- the timer is knackered, so someone needs to stay with the bomb. AJ draws the short straw, but Harry decides he has to be the one to stay. He tells AJ to look after Grace and gives his approval. There’s a tearful farewell which could (and has) make a grown man cry.

The movie ends with massive celebrations around the world (it’s daytime everywhere, weirdly) and lots of shots of the stars and stripes flying. It’s horribly cheesy, but Bay manages to just about pull it off by having the end credits featuring Grace and AJ’s wedding, with more of Aerosmith playing.

So, yeah, it’s cheesy with some needless patriotism thrown in and gung ho, but it boasts a great cast, a wonderful power ballad and

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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